COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Republican presidential hopeful Nikki Haley suggested in an interview that United States forces “need to align” with non-European countries including Russia to enhance global security, a remark her campaign characterized as a gaffe but which comes amid the Biden administration’s approval for millions more in military aid to assist Ukraine in fending off Russia’s invasion.
Asked by WMUR-TV for a segment Wednesday on regions of the world to which she felt the U.S. could pay more attention, Haley — who served the Trump administration as United Nations ambassador, first said “the Arab world,” saying the U.S. needs Arab countries “to kind of join with us” on opposing Iran.
“You see Saudi Arabia making deals with China, that’s not good for us. We need them to be with us, and then we need to align with others, Russia, Australia, Japan, Israel,” Haley added.
“We need to start focusing on the allies that we have besides the Europeans and make sure that we have more friends — one, for our needs, so that we’re not dependent on an enemy for energy or medicines or anything else, and then two, to make sure that we build those alliances so that the world is more safe.”
On Saturday, Haley’s campaign said the candidate misspoke.
“This is completely ridiculous, she obviously misspoke,” spokesman Ken Farnaso told The Associated Press on Saturday. “No one one has been tougher on Russia than Nikki Haley.”
Asked to comment on the interview, Haley in a statement to AP called the country an “enemy” and referred to President Vladimir Putin as a “thug.”
“I fought them at the U.N. and I will continue to fight them,” Haley said. “They want to destroy us and our allies and they are not to be trusted.”
During her tenure as U.N. ambassador during the Trump administration, Haley was critical of Russia, denouncing its invasion of Crimea, condemning the country for “holding the hands” of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un as the countries sparred over sanctions. She also referred to Russian corruption as a “virus” which is “impeding our ability to achieve complete denuclearization in North Korea.”
A divide has emerged within the Republican field on how the U.S. should handle Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In response to a query earlier this year from then-Fox News host Tucker Carlson, Haley said U.S. support for Ukraine was critical against an anti-American regime that is “attempting to brutally expand by force into a neighboring pro-American country,” saying a Russian victory would only make countries like China and Iran “more aggressive.”
At the time, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has since entered the GOP primary race, argued that stopping the aggression wasn’t a vital U.S. strategic interest, characterizing the situation as a “territorial dispute.”
A number of fellow Republicans were critical of DeSantis’ initial remarks. Trump, who had called on European countries to share more of the financial burden of defending Ukraine, said DeSantis’ answers were “following what I am saying.” A day later, Haley said she agreed with Trump that “DeSantis is copying him,” writing in an op-ed that the characterization of the war as a “territorial dispute” represented “weakness.”
Following those critiques, DeSantis said his earlier comments referenced ongoing fighting in the eastern Donbas region, as well as Russia’s 2014 seizure of Crimea. Ukraine’s borders are internationally recognized, including by the United Nations.
For months, Stand for America, a super PAC supportive of Haley, has been aiming to draw a contrast between the former South Carolina governor and DeSantis.
“While DeSantis changes his policy positions based on the mood of his donors and television hosts, Haley never backs down,” SFA Lead Strategist Mark Harris said in a release last month.
On Saturday, a spokesman for Never Back Down, the super PAC supporting DeSantis, called Haley’s remark to WMUR “almost as bizarre as her aligning with woke Disney,” a reference to the former South Carolina governor’s critiques of DeSantis’ ongoing dispute with the entertainment giant, whose jobs she has said her home state “will happily accept” should it choose to leave Florida.
The U.S. has been upping its military aid to Ukraine as Russia’s invasion enters its 16th month. In late May, President Joe Biden approved a new aid package that totals up to $300 million and includes additional munitions for drones and an array of other weapons.
To date, the U.S. has committed more than $37.6 billion in weapons and other equipment to Ukraine since Russia attacked on Feb. 24, 2022. This latest package will be done under presidential drawdown authority, which allows the Pentagon to take weapons from its own stocks and quickly ship them to Ukraine, officials said.
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